Headmaster, Whitgift School
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‘When they go low we go high’ has become an overused catchphrase, and I certainly don’t mean to try to take moral high ground in the latest attacks on independent schools from the Sunday Times. But I do think a response is needed, and one which adds some nuance to the headlines splashed on their front page. Alastair McCall has a distinguished pedigree in analysing data, so for him to write phrases such as ‘gorging on top grades’ and ‘a leg up into the ivory tower’ is genuinely disappointing.
First, some obvious background. Schools have been in a terrible position with regards to exam classes these last two years. Whatever the logic of the 2019 ‘algorithm’, it was morally flawed, as I seem to remember many pointed out at the time. And whatever the merits of the ‘teacher assessed’ solution of 2020, it placed intolerable burdens on all schools. Lockdowns harmed kids, academically, socially and mentally, and they undoubtedly, on the whole, harmed students in maintained schools more than those in independent schools. To that extent, a ‘baked-in’ disadvantage was government-caused and undeniable.
But even if the accusation really is that professional Heads and their senior staff ‘gamed’ the system – no, ‘gamed Covid’ according to the headline – there is simply no empirical evidence. Try to see what maintained selective schools did with grades, and it’s hard to: most didn’t publish. Many independent schools didn’t publish results either, understandably arguing that this was not a league table matter this year. As indeed it shouldn’t be. Many schools’ results rose significantly, and as at least one respected commentator has tweeted, maintained schools could be said to have been at least as ‘guilty’, if guilt had anything to do with it.
I can speak for my own school very simply. Yes, our percentage of A* grades at A level did rise between 2019 and 2021, from 23% (just below those of the hyper-selective local grammar school, whose 2021 grades are not available for scrutiny) to 41%. Brighter pupils? Not particularly. More motivated? Well, differently motivated, certainly. And, as one of our governors (a distinguished academic – yes, whatever the article claims, our process was rigorously overseen – no ‘failure of governance’, thank you) said, in an exam year some students will fall short of their potential, they will meet unexpected hurdles, or be unlucky. But if you assess them over time and ‘in situ’, those students are less likely to underachieve, and the overall results at the top end will logically be higher. 23 to 40? Not unreasonable for a selective school where the students are determined to do well.
The state/independent gap in achievement at the top end has always been there. The reasons have been well rehearsed but may need repeating: more independent schools are selective, especially at 16+, and the proportion of the national cohort in independent sixth forms is higher; independent schools are more likely to be focussed on A levels and selective universities; independent schools are more routinely judged on 18+ results than 16+, and so on.
Indeed, that’s what those of us who work in close partnership with Academies (such as the schools who support the London Academy of Excellence and other institutions), or who offer masterclasses and out-of-school support, as my school does, or who give bright disadvantaged kids a ‘leg up to the ivory tower’ (as Alastair has it) are trying to help with. It’s not much, it’s not enough, but it’s something.
But 2021 results? I’d be amazed if any Head did not approach 2021’s exams as we did. I wrote in my report to my governors ‘in case anyone were to argue that we have just inflated the grades because we could, we still have a number of D/E/U grades not unlike the number in 2019.’
Our results are professional, robust and honest, and above all evidence-based. The students worked incredibly hard under tough circumstances. If we had gamed the system, why would we have awarded any Ds or Es? If we had gamed the system, why put the students through invigilated exams? Why have any students not met their first choice HE offer (yes, we had a few)?
I have met Alastair McCall and, as I say, admire his work. He has done much to raise awareness of what is going well and less well in schools. I am minded to invite him to do two things: first, to see the evidence we used to calculate grades, and talk to some of those who spent untold hours agonising over them. And second, to look some of our 2021 students in the eye and tell them, if he really thinks it, that they got a ‘leg up to an ivory tower’. I warn him: they are bright students and they may pretty robustly convince him otherwise. Rather better than I can, probably.